WASHINGTON — Uvalde’s lone pediatrician, Dr. Roy Guerrero, spoke of his community’s pain as he joined President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at a White House event Monday celebrating a new law at tackling gun violence, a bipartisan breakthrough that flowed directly from the devastating May 24 shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
“It’s been 40 days since the massacre and now the makeshift memorial in downtown Uvalde, consisting of wooden crosses, children’s pictures, candles and colorful ribbons has been taken down,” Guerrero said.
“The dried white roses and the sun-bleached teddy bears have been taken away and stored. What remains is the hollow feeling in our gut as we drive through our sleepy downtown, which quickly turns to pain and anger as we sometimes accidentally approach the grounds of Robb Elementary School, a place no one likes to visit.”
Guerrero said he was channeling that pain to speak for the parents and victims of Uvalde, who are seeking truth and accountability after the terrible tragedy. It’s difficult being a pediatrician where children don’t want to return to school and are struggling with post-traumatic stress and depression, he said.
“I spend half my days convincing kids that no one is coming for them and that they are safe,” he said. “But how do I say that knowing that the very weapons used in the attack are still freely available? Let this only be the start of the movement towards the banning of assault weapons.”
That prompted applause from many of the hundreds gathered on the White House’s South Lawn on a warm, sunny day.
The new law represents landmark action following decades of legislative stalemate in the face of one mass shooting after another and it’s a measure gun control advocates have praised as an important step.
But they also have stressed that more is needed. As Biden launched into part of his speech touting the meaningful progress embodied in the new law, Manuel Oliver stood up and shouted that Biden needs to do more.
Oliver’s son was killed in the 2018 mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla. He was among a number of gun control activists who attended Monday’s event and welcomed the new law even as they emphasized that they are in no mood for resting on laurels.
“I was not here to celebrate, I am here to fight against the injustice behind gun violence,” Oliver said later in an interview outside the White House. “We are here clapping and giving hugs to each other and taking selfies in front of the White House while in Uvalde these mothers are still crying. They don’t know what happened, they can’t understand. Their lives are broken.”
Oliver was escorted out of the event following his interruption, even as Biden said from the podium that he agreed the job of addressing the country’s rampant gun violence isn’t finished.
“Let him talk, okay, because make no mistake about it – this legislation is real progress, but more has to be done,” Biden said.
Survivors of several mass shootings were at the event including those from the Uvalde massacre and a May 2018 rampage that left 10 people dead at Santa Fe High School outside Houston.
Biden said 80 members of Congress were in attendance. Among them was Rep. Tony Gonzales, whose district includes Uvalde. Gonzales was the only Texas Republican in the House to vote for the new law.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who co-authored the new law as the lead Republican negotiator, had a front-and-center seat for Monday’s event.
Cornyn secured passage of the legislation despite fierce criticism from gun rights supporters and booing during his remarks at the state GOP convention.
Biden thanked the core four members of the bipartisan negotiating group and put emphasis on Cornyn’s name, then said he hoped mentioning him wouldn’t get the Texas senator in trouble.
The new law dedicates billions of dollars to bolster mental health access and improve school security.
It includes modest updates to the nation’s gun laws, with new penalties for gun traffickers, enhanced background reviews for those under 21 and prohibitions on some domestic violence offenders who were previously not covered by the law.
It also provides funding for states to adopt crisis intervention measures, which include “red flag” laws under which people can lose their firearms if a court finds they pose a danger to themselves or others.
Biden said the law demonstrates that progress is possible and that he hopes for more. Specifically, he called for banning assault weapons, requiring gun owners to safely store firearms and expanding background checks.
Those statements were welcomed by many of those in Monday’s audience but they face GOP resistance. Cornyn has downplayed the potential for more action anytime soon.
Cornyn could be seen shaking hands with many in the crowd as he left the event. During an appearance later Monday on Fox News Radio’s Guy Benson Show, Cornyn noted how Biden and others were talking about the gun measures they would like to pass and that he kept out of the new law.
“What struck me this morning about the event at the White House is how much that President Biden and Democrats wanted in a bill that was not in this bill,” Cornyn said.
He rejected the idea that the law he helped write should be described as a “gun control” bill and reiterated in particular that it includes protections for due process when it comes to red flag laws.
Just 16 days in effect, the new law already has been overshadowed by yet another mass shooting. The event came a week after a gunman in Highland Park, Illinois, killed seven people at an Independence Day parade, a stark reminder of the limitations of the new law in addressing the American phenomenon of mass gun violence.
The law is the most impactful firearms violence measure Congress has approved since enacting a now-expired assault weapons ban in 1993. Yet gun control advocates — and even White House officials — say it’s premature to declare victory.
“It’s historic, but it’s also the very bare minimum of what Congress should do,” said Igor Volsky, director of the private group Guns Down America.
Volsky’s group, along with other gun violence advocacy groups, hosted a news conference on Monday outside the White House calling on Biden to stand up a dedicated office at the White House to address gun violence with a greater sense of urgency.
Biden has left gun control policy to his Domestic Policy Council, rather than establishing a dedicated office like he stood up to address climate change or the gender policy council he established to promote reproductive health access.
The president signed the bipartisan gun bill into law on June 25, calling it “a historic achievement.”
Most of the new law’s $13 billion in spending would be used for bolstering mental health programs and for schools, which have been targeted by shooters in Newtown, Conn.; Parkland, Fla.; and many other gun massacres. It was the product of weeks of closed-door negotiations by a bipartisan group of senators who emerged with a compromise.
“It matters,” Biden said Monday of the new law. “It matters, but it’s not enough and we all know that.”
First Lady Jill Biden was in San Antonio on Monday for the UnidosUS annual conference. She also spoke to donors and some elected officials at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
In her fundraiser remarks, she praised the bipartisan gun safety law and criticized Republicans for opposing more aggressive gun-related proposals such as a ban on assault-style firearms.
“Republicans, you have to admit, stick together. No matter what it is, even if it’s choosing — which I really don’t understand — choosing to stick together on a weapon that kills our children,” she said. “We’ve got to be a little bit better as Democrats. And I feel that a lot of times we’re fighting one another on degrees of something.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press
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